Tag Archives: English

Grammar Rules – But They’re Not Absolute

By Jay Menard

Why is it that we encourage everyone to experiment and seek out new boundaries — unless of course they’re putting pen to paper.

And why is that many of us for whom the written word is a passion are the worst offenders at stifling creativity and, well, being a pain in the ass.

Few people will look at a painting and say, “Yeah, I like it, but that colour in the corner is just wrong.” But there are those who will dismiss an entire argument because there’s a sentence that ends in a preposition. There are others who love nothing more than pointing out other people’s grammatical flaws.

That’s not cool or funny. It’s just obnoxious and counter-productive. Continue reading

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Dead Language Breathes Life into Modern English

By Jason Menard

I think it was Elvis who said it best when he sang, “it’s only words and words are all I have to steal your heart away.” And speaking from personal experience, if my words are any more eloquent, it is directly the result of the Latin training I received at South Secondary School.

Wednesday’s edition of The London Free Press profiled the retirement of Neil Tenney, the Latin teacher at that educational institution. And it also highlighted the fact that this program is the last of its kind in both the Thames Valley District and London Catholic School Boards – and that’s a shame.

Currently I make my living with words. Corporate communications expert by day, freelance columnist, sports writer, and radio fill-in by night, it has been through my abilities with the English language that I’m able to put food on my family’s table. And for that I have to thank my Latin teacher Jean Mayhew – formerly of South Secondary School.

You see, I didn’t learn English in English class. Far from it. I actually learned my English grammar during my time in Latin and French classes at South and, later, Western. It was there I learned about verb tenses, conjugation, and – most importantly – flow.

So while we’d be chuckling through the Cambridge Latin course reading silly stories about thepater Caecillius and his family, we were actually building a foundation upon which our appreciation of language grew. But without that foundation in the future, where will people learn?

I grew up in a time of English courses focusing on reading comprehension. It didn’t matter if you could spell your words or construct a coherent though as long as the general idea was expressed. And that continues, in large part, to this day. My wife and I fight a daily battle with our 12-year-old son about the importance of developing proper language skills, when his argument – justified by solid grades – is that “you get the point.”

I’m not a stickler for grammar. Few people annoy me more than those who absolutely refuse to dangle their participles or split their infinitives. Grammar is fluid and what sounds right is often less jarring and more effective than what the prescriptive grammarians would condone from their ivory linguistic towers. I’ve got no problems with people using “they” in the singular if it sounds better. After all, grammar is designed to let words flow and to allow concepts to be expressed – not to rigidly force everyone to conform to one ideal that may no longer apply.

Life goes on. Things change and we’re inundated with new cultural, technological, and linguistic influences each and every day. If we remain dogmatically chained to our linguistic past, we’ll be ill-prepared to deal with the challenges of the future.

However, one should have a solid foundation upon which the future can be built. Language – and one’s understanding of it – enables people to experience a world of influences that may be limited by lack of comprehension. For me, Latin and French gave me the structure and knowledge that was lacking from my English training, wherein my teachers were more concerned about me understanding what was said than how it was said.

If I can boast any way with words, it’s because of that Latin and French training. Before I became immersed in those language studies, I was the product of my teaching. I understood concepts and could generally express them – but it was far from precise and it was far from proper.

Words are one of the best ways we have to convey feelings, emotions, and experiences. It is one thing to string together a few words to get an idea out there – it’s something much different to use language to allow the reader to experience the idea through the lyric effect of words. And let’s not even start how Latin has aided in my rudimentary understanding of languages like Spanish and Portuguese.

We live in a world where instant messaging and social interactive media has turned conversation into a competitive race. It’s not about saying something properly, it’s about saying it in as few characters as possible. Yet, eventually, those IMers will have to converse with a real person. They’ll have to hand in an assignment – not to mention a resumé — that isn’t peppered with emoticons or LOL’s. The question is where will they find the skills to do so?

I was lucky. I had Ms. Mayhew’s Latin class to steer me on the right course. Little did I know that weekly bingos, annual banquets, and light-hearted learning would have such an impact on my life. But it has, and I’m a better writer — and a better man – for it. Hopefully generations of students at South will continue to have the option to take this class, because its value is immeasurable.

It’s just too bad that no other students in the region will be able to start a day with Ms. Mayhew’s, or any other Latin teacher’s, terrible Latin jokes like semper ubi sub ubi – or always [where] under [where]. It may have been a terrible pun, but it was a fantastic foundation for the future.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

English Doesn’t Excuse Ignorance

By Jason Menard

After participating in a global conference call, I have come to the conclusion that I am an ignoramus. The problem is that I can only say that in two languages. While I’m not alone in this situation, we, as a society, continue to revel in our ignorance instead of embracing a chance to improve our stature.

I had the pleasure of participating in a conference call with colleagues around the world, from Russia to Venezuela and all points in between. And guess what language it was in? That’s right – English.

As I sat through the meeting, chatting convivially with my cohorts in my mother tongue, it slowly dawned upon me that they were conversing with a dexterity and alacrity of which I could only dream. They were laughing, joking, and speaking in confident tones, navigating the English language – occasionally in a more cumbersome manner than normal, but still in a way that puts us to shame.

As I listened to these people who speak two, three, even more languages with confidence, I began to feel shame. While I’m fluent in French, and I can also understand a fair bit of Spanish and Portuguese, I felt shame about the way that we look at language in this country.

Whereas other countries look at multilingualism as a normal part of their everyday life, many of us continue to look at bilingualism as an imposition. Instead of embracing the opportunity that learning a new language offers us, we close our minds and assume that, simply because we don’t encounter a language in our day-to-day lives, we don’t need to learn it.

We couldn’t be more wrong. While we may not utter the phrase “Speak White,” we live it by our insistence that the world must come to us, instead of us meeting the world half-way. And in any language, actions speak louder than words.

This insular attitude persists, even in the reaction to our school curriculum. Reading through the literature that my son brought home with him from his first day of school, there was a note explaining why French was being taught in the schools. The fact that some need an explanation as to why one of Canada’s two official languages is being taught to Canadian students should be an embarrassment.

Already our children don’t receive enough language training. The level of language education is inadequate and leaves our students unprepared when confronted with an actual French speaker. In high school, graduation requires only two credits in French. And yet still people feel this is to onerous.

Yes, but there may be those of you who will never travel outside of English-speaking countries. So why should you learn French? Simple. It helps your English.

I like to consider myself the perfect test case. All though my elementary school and into high school, English grammar was an afterthought. With the focus on reading comprehension and displaying the ability to express your understanding of the reading, not enough focus was placed on the basics of language construction. We could understand the paragraph, but were unable to craft a sentence.

My English was passable, but certainly not eloquent in my youth. I could express myself well verbally and was able to string a sentence together. But I wasn’t cogniscent of the how’s and why’s of language. That came later on in my life, when I started taking Latin and French at higher levels.

There I learned how a sentence is constructed. There I learned the basic grammar rules that allow language to escape its pedestrian roots and literally fly off the pages. It was through learning about various clauses, tenses, and agreements in French and Latin that I was able to apply that knowledge to my English speaking and writing, and understand the correlation.

Forget the fact that languages allow us to understand each other better. Forget the fact that an appreciation for someone’s mother tongue enables us to bridge cultural and physical gaps. The greatest gift that learning another language has to offer is the ability to improve the way we speak our own.

This world is shrinking. Even during my not-so-lengthy stay on this planet to date, I’ve seen a marked shift in the diversification of Canadian society. While our canvas was fairly monochrome in the past, now the image is increasingly being enriched by a multitude of different colours, swirling together to create a cultural mosaic that’s striking in its beauty. The Internet has rendered the farthest corners of the world just a click away. And yet we continue to resist embracing diversity in language.

The world is literally at our doorstep. The question is, why do we continue to bar the door? And why are we afraid of opening it to a world of new experiences and self-improvement?

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

The Last Words

By Jason Menard

As a man who values the English language, let me put this sentiment into a form that the American Literary Council will understand: I want tu beet yue with a shuhlaelee.

For those who aren’t fluent in idiot that translates to “I want to beat you with a shillelagh.

There is a movement afoot to simplify spelling and make it more phonetic, stating that it would help young children learn to read more quickly and would reduce the rate of illiteracy. And it’s a movement that’s been around, south of the border, for over 100 years.

Apparently, writing the way that I am and reading the way you are, is too much of a challenge and leaves English-speakers at a disadvantage to those speaking other languages, such as Spanish and German, whose words are spelled phonetically. According to the ALC, English has 42 sounds that are spelled in 400 different ways.

And that’s in the U.S. Can you image how they’d react to our extra u’s?

Empiric evidence is showing that the English language is being assaulted every day. Instant messaging has created its own sub-dialect of short forms and acronyms designed to save a few keystrokes – and long-term carpal tunnel syndrome – and those terms and phrases have entered into the mainstream.

Of course, the youth aren’t the originators of the acronym. Business has created its own jargon of FYI, ASAP, and QED!

Here’s a few more letters for all of you – STFU! Sorry, this is a family column.

It appears that more and more of us aren’t taking pride in the simple beauty of language. The ability to spell is rapidly going by the wayside as people rely on the bane of a writer’s existence – spell check. And grammar? Forget it – computer versions are often wrong and modern writers don’t have the background knowledge to know when to trust their electronic overlord and when to resist!

Forget people enjoying the beauty of the English language and the way it can be used to draw out emotions from plain text — the ability to string together a sequence of words into a coherent sentence is an ability that’s going the way of the dinosaur.

I’m not a stuffy grammarian – I will end my sentences with propositions from time to time if the text reads better. I appreciate the need for language to modify and change to meet the needs of the modern and future generations. However, there are lines that need to be drawn in the sand – and spelling is where that line is, uhm, spelled out.

If you dumb down your language because it’s too tough for those who speak it to write, then you are, in effect, lowering the expectations of your populace. Instead of challenging them to be better and raise the bar, you end up lowering the bar so that everyone can feel good about themselves – and it doesn’t matter if an ant couldn’t limbo under the threshold that you’ve set.

And why are we so liberal with language? Why is dumbing down the very way we express ourselves acceptable, when no one would ever consider applying a “close-enough” standard to science, medicine, or technology? The world around us continues to grow and require more knowledge, ability, and skills – so why shouldn’t the world within us, and our ability to express ourselves, follow the same path?

This is not a new battle. Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin were early advocates of simpler spelling, and they were followed by Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt. Others continue to champion the cause of simpler spelling and perhaps now they’ve found a generation who will find their crusade more palatable.

After all, in a world where BRB, LOL, and Gr8 are commonplace terms, why should they not be included in the mainstream text? Are their inclusions any more offensive than the modern-day executive whose inter-office memo is riddled with errors? Or are they any more grating than the person who misappropriates figures of speech during a conversation?

No, but a society that limits itself through speech limits its ability to grow. Like Quebecoisjoual, this dumbed-down language restricts the capacity of speech to explore new territories – only existing in its own familiar sphere. By refusing to challenge ourselves to be better through speech, we retard our ability to improve through thought. We eliminate a tie to our history, as when the etymology of words gets broken, so too does their connection to our past.

A simplified language would only exist in the here and now, whereas a fully formed and constantly adapting language not only retains its connection to the past, but it also offers the promise of continued refinement in the future.

After all, like Elvis sang, “they’re only words, but words are all I have to steal your heart away.”

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Our Empty Words Are Only Spoken in English

By Jason Menard

For an allegedly bilingual country, we do a horrible job of showing it. And it’s time that we, as a country, literally put our money where our mouths are.

The Canadian government has set the goal of having half of its students graduate bilingual by 2013. It’s a lofty goal, but one that will never happen unless changes are made to the curriculum. French language instruction in this country, from coast to coast, must be mandatory for the duration of our students schooling.

Forget the fact that a significant number of students in Canada drop French as soon as its no longer compulsory – the quality of French that’s being taught is deplorable. Not to condemn our hard-working teachers, but they’re just not equipped to handle the demands that teaching a second language requires.

Simply put, our French teachers can’t speak French.

Oh sure, they have the rudimentary knowledge and they’ve got the basic accreditation required to do a passable job. But they don’t have the skill or expertise to help our children succeed. A building is only as strong as its foundation, and the quality and level of French that’s being taught in the elementary school system is deplorable.

My wife, whose first language is French, and I (functionally bilingual) have had the displeasure of reviewing our bilingual son’s French homework since he switched to English school. We could accept the rudimentary level being taught, as one would assume that everyone’s starting from zero. What we couldn’t accept were the mistakes: glaring errors, wrong words being used, incorrect grammar, and poor agreements. And then we wonder why our kids can’t speak French. There’s a problem when, in the past, our son’s French teacher has refused to speak to my wife and I in that language.

And it gets no better. Coming out of high school, our students may think they can speak French. But when they come face to face with an actual francophone, they’re unable to carry on a conversation. Having come through the Ontario high school system and taking two French OACs, I know first-hand that the majority of my fellow students were capable of conjugating a verb – but putting it into practice in anything more than a basic conversation was beyond their scope and capabilities.

Compounding the problem is that there’s really no perceived need for Anglophone students to take French if they’re not living in Quebec. I’d hazard a guess that, other than the remote getting stuck on the French CBC channel, their exposure to the language of Molière is fairly limited. As such, there’s no impetus for our students to take the learning of a second language seriously.

Unfortunately, all this does is further fracture our country. Many English speakers can’t understand the frustration that Quebecers feel when travelling outside of la belle province. They don’t understand the anger, resentment, and feeling of a lack of respect that comes from living in a country that, on one hand, professes to be bilingual, while on the other hand doesn’t practice what it preaches.

Now living in Ontario, I find it embarrassing that when my Francophone in-laws come to visit, they’re unable to find anyone to converse in their own language. They are forced to converse in English, whereas my experience has been that the opposite is rarely true. That’s Ontario! A neighbouring province to Quebec! Is there any wonder why some Quebecers don’t feel Canadian when their own country makes little to no effort – and places no premium – on being able to communicate with a significant segment of our society.

Due to the fact that they’re living in a region surrounded by over 300 million English speakers, most Quebecers will have a rudimentary understanding of English, and – unless you’re extremely rude – will make an effort to find common grounds for communications. Yet we treat French as an afterthought in the rest of our country.

The more rampant xenophobes will cling to the argument that we don’t make the same accommodations for other ethnicities, but that misses the point that this country was founded and flourished as a bilingual nation – an amalgamation of English and French to create a new Canada. Just as my expectation for living in Japan would be that I would be required to learn Japanese, so too is there an expectation that immigrants to this country be able to converse in English or French. But woe be to the person who chooses French thinking that knowledge of that language will open any doors outside of Quebec.

If we’re truly committed to being a bilingual country – and the reasons and benefits are numerous, while the counter-arguments are non-existent – then we need to invest in our future. French must be mandatory until high school graduation. And the quality must improve. We must either hire native speakers, or require more than a couple of courses for French instruction certification.

Otherwise, we’re just paying lip service to the cause of bilingualism — and our empty words are only intelligible in English.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved